Yerba mate is a tree. Not a tall one, but a moderately tall tree. In the farms they are not that big because they are pruned to make it easier to harvest, a similar method is used with the camellia sinensis plant for harvesting tea.
The natives of this area, the Guaranies, discovered that they could make a drink with the plant, but they had to dried the leaves first. Yerba mate is poisonous if not dried. Not so poisonous that you will die, but you will wish to. It will give you stomach cramps, inflamation, diarrhea, intestinal cramps, incontinence and fever. The natives used to have a leather pouch that was really thin and was attached to their back so while walking in the jungle and under the sun yerba would be dried.
Nowadays we use a much different method to process yerba mate.
Making yerba is so cheap, that you don’t need to any better technology than this. Of course you can make the process cleaner and have almost no loss, but the amount of cash that you will make after the investment is not worth it.
Yerba grows naturally in the jungle or can be planted in order to be gathered. It’s usually planted in iron-rich soil and grows really easy. 95% of the production of Yerba in the province of misiones is organic, they don’t use any kind of fertilizers or insecticides. The ranch that we usually go to is around 2000 acres (800 hectáreas) And has a lot of pines and of course, Yerba. At the place that I visit, they process around 3 tons of yerba a day (3000kg, or around 6000 pounds).
First yerba is picked and trasported in trucks to the facility and piled up.
After this is placed in some transport belts that will toss it inside of a huge tumbler.
One end of the tumbler is a giant oven. To dry 1000kg of yerba (2000lbs) they burn around 2 square meters of wood.
It’s really important that the wood is not pine or any wood that will burn with a smell because it will taint the Yerba itself.
The other end of the tumbler is another transport belt to the second oven that is heated to 60 to 80% of the temperature of the first one. After this 2nd oven, it gets transported to a 3rd set of firepits and ovens that have around 40°C (104F) to 50°C (122F) at the top. It’s a 2 stories oven and the yerba goes one way and then comes back on the floor below into what we call “canchadora”.
Canchadora is a machine that will separate the stick from the leaves, ang grind the leaves. The sticks are sold too, because you can have “yerba con palo” (with sticks) or “yerba sin palo” (without sticks). The main difference is in the intensity of the flavour. In 1kg (2lbs) of yerba con palo, you have a certain amount of leaves and a certain amount of sticks. If you have the same volume of yerba but without the palos, there will be an increase on the volume of leaves in comparision son the flavour will be much intense.
Everything and everyone in the factory is covered with a thick green powder.
Then they bag the yerba in 50kg (100lbs) bags. Each bag is left in storage for at least one year. This process is called “estacionamiento” (literally translates to parking, as in car parking) and the sold to the factories that will bag it in the comercial packages. This ranch sells yerba to the 3 main companies in Argentina, so it’s kinda funny to know that this bags will be divided in different bags with a 100% price variation because they are selling you the brand.
The market price of one of the white bags (the 50kg ones) is around 40 pesos (10 us dollars).
Once you have you yerba, you should start drinking it. There’s mainly 2 ways of drinking, the mate and the mate cocido. Mate cocido is the yerba in a bag, like a tea bag. Cocido in spanish means cooked, but also [brew or boil]
My grandma used to put one bag in boiling milk, and then put honey and 1 or 2 drops of vanilla essence or extract, i still do this in winter, warms my body and my soul.
The other way is getting a mate (the weird gourd like argentinean water bong thingy). There is a GORILLION mates. You have wooden, bone, glass, stainless steel, bamboo, dried gourd, aluminium, porcelain, and a big list of etc’s.
Then you need a bombilla (straw). it’s really important that no matter what material the straw is, the tip should not heat. It acn be a bronce or wood tip because you are going to be zipping nearly boiling water though it and if its metal will burn your lips.
You fill 3/4 parts of the mate with the yerba and you put 95°C water (203F). If you put boiling water you’ll burn the yerba and the mate will be steeped too fast. When the yerba starts to float, you take 2 spoons out, put 2 new yerba spoons in and keep drinking. You can have Mate dulce (sweet ones) or mate amargo (without sweeteners). I hate sweet mate, my mom puts artificial sweetener on the thermos and I want to bludgeon her with it.
Everyone drinks mate all day here. It’s one of the few things that goes across all classes and sectors of our society. Even though you don’t drink, you have a mate at home because somebody could show up.
Bonus: Mate myths and traditions.
“Un mate no se le niega a nadie”. If somebody asks you for a mate, you can’t say no. If you do, you are the biggest asshole ever.
“Mate corto”. Is when you pour little watter on the mate. The other person doesn’t what you to leave their house, so they’ll pull short mates to make them last longer. My grandma says “corto como beso de marido” that translates to “Short as a husband kiss” in opposition to a lover or boyfriend.